The unifying concept that now forms the foundation of the European Union was almost unimaginable following the devastation of World Wars I and II. At that time, it seemed that Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were formulating an unrealistic approach to European politics by suggesting unprecedented levels of political, economic and social cooperation among the most powerful states. Ironically, the European Union project has proven to be a successful example of regional integration and intrastate collaboration. The European Community, as it was first known, was initially comprised of six founding member states: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This economic community has since undergone a series of transformations that have both deepened and widened its policy scope, as well as enlarged its territorial boundaries. The 2004 enlargement consisted of the addition of ten member states, bringing the total up to 25 members. The entry of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 brought the total to 27 members. It appears as though the EU is the regional organization to join, but questions are now being raised about the Union’s ability to sustain this tremendous growth. In an effort to ascertain how successful the process of enlargement has been until now and what consequences and it will have for the EU’s future, it is necessary to examine some of the most influential political, economic and social challenges facing Europe today.


THE EASTWARD EXPANSION OF THE EUROPEAN UNION: A HISTORICAL NARRATIVE

The unifying concept that now forms the foundation of the European Union was almost unimaginable following the devastation of World Wars I and II. At that time, it seemed that Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman were formulating an unrealistic approach to European politics by suggesting unprecedented levels of political, economic and social cooperation among the most powerful states. Ironically, the European Union project has proven to be a successful example of regional integration and intrastate collaboration. The European Community, as it was first known, was initially comprised of six founding member states: France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. This economic community has since undergone a series of transformations that have both deepened and widened its policy scope, as well as enlarged its territorial boundaries. The 2004 enlargement consisted of the addition of ten member states, bringing the total up to 25 members. The entry of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 brought the total to 27 members. It appears as though the EU is the regional organization to join, but questions are now being raised about the Union’s ability to sustain this tremendous growth. In an effort to ascertain how successful the process of enlargement has been until now and what consequences and it will have for the EU’s future, it is necessary to examine some of the most influential political, economic and social challenges facing Europe today.

            The European Community was initially established after World War II, according to Robert Schuman in his famous declaration, to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible”. The EC was an economic organization with a political goal. The establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community would pool the resources needed to conduct warfare under a single, common authority, thus making it virtually impossible for France or Germany to circumvent the rules that they had voluntarily agreed to abide by. The European Community project was an instant success and the development of a customs union served to strengthen the relations among the member states. By the 1960s and 70s, several other developed European nations were submitting applications to join this economic elite. Several enlargements ensued: in 1973, the UK, Ireland and Denmark joined; in 1981, Greece joined; in 1986, Spain and Portugal joined; in 1995, Austria, Sweden and Finland joined; in 2004, ten countries in Central and Eastern Europe joined; and in 2007, the last wave of enlargement included Bulgaria and Romania. Each wave of enlargement was characterized by both unprecedented opportunities and challenges.

            The first enlargement, in 1973, was relatively painless. The EC had a good working relationship with both the UK and Denmark, particularly after Charles de Gaulle stepped down from power in France. Both countries were significantly developed and could provide to the overall political and economic well being of the community. Ireland, on the other hand, had some severe economic problems, including the fact that its largest export at the time consisted of people. In order to address these kinds of economic problems, the EC had to expand its involvement and, hence, its institutions. The European Economic Community, as it was now called, developed various structural adjustment programs and aid packages that would help less developed member states ‘catch up’. These programs would prove to be absolutely fundamental to the success of the subsequent enlargements in 1981 and 1986, in which Greece, Spain and Portugal became members. The Phare Program was also designed to make it possible for these new member states, especially since all three had just emerged from military dictatorships, to implement economic reforms without disrupting the consolidation of their democracies. The economic improvements that would be witnessed in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal were unparalleled. In fact, Ireland has been referred to as the “European miracle” because of its successful development policies.

            In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the EU would be confronted with challenges that many political analysts could not even have imagined were possible. The Berlin Wall was dismantled and the Soviet Union would collapse a short time later. The Eastern European states were now vulnerable from political, economic and security perspectives. In an effort to create a sense of domestic stability, most of the states in the region sought to join NATO in an effort to ensure that the Soviet Union would no longer pose a threat in the way that it did in the past and to become members of the European Union and rebuild their weakened economies. The United States extended NATO membership to most of the countries of Eastern Europe and this helped the West to more effectively secure its eastern borders. Having addressed some of the most urgent security issues, it was now imperative that the Eastern European countries work on consolidating their democracies and free market economic systems. By 1992, the EEC had become the EU with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. This treaty would set certain conditions for member states and that meant that applicant countries would have to institute a long list of reforms before they would be allowed to join. In addition, the Copenhagen criteria for EU membership would also have to be met for candidate countries’ laws to reflect those of the EU’s Acquis Communautaire, along with the requisite signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreements by all applicant countries. This process was more complicated and difficult than some of the members and candidates anticipated, but its challenges would prove surmountable over time.

            In order for the applicant countries to be allowed to join the EU, they had to fulfill some basic conditions. Although some conditions, such as the consolidation of a democratic regime, judicial reform, the passage of human rights laws, and the elimination of the death penalty, were relatively easy to meet for the highly developed countries that joined in 1995 (Austria, Sweden and Finland), they posed several problems for the former communist states. The establishment and consolidation of democracy was a grueling process because it was so difficult to remove ‘communist nomenklatura’ from office, corruption was rampant, and the general population was not familiar with the rules of the ‘new game’. For the EU, however, democracy was ‘the only game in town’ and the Eastern European states were going to have to implement reforms quickly to convince the EU that they were capable of successfully carrying out the process of democratization. From an economic perspective, the challenges were just as seemingly insurmountable: the privatization of industries and businesses gave way to government corruption; fostering entrepreneurship was difficult when most people had little experience with capitalist thinking; and balancing a national budget was almost impossible when so much of the infrastructure required urgent repairs.

            Several years into the preparation for the 2004 enlargement, certain countries had outperformed others and the notion of assimilation feasibility was applicable only in some cases. In Alexander Stubb and Elizabeth Bomberg’s book,How the European Union Works, the authors outline some of the steps that the Eastern European countries needed to take to meet the expectations set by Brussels. One of the most significant remaining challenges, however, has been that of teaching a new generation of young Europeans about their social responsibilities as members of the EU. Civil society had been destroyed by the communist parties in Eastern Europe and rebuilding it would provide the kind of progress necessary for developing a new foundation for democracy. In fact, it is interesting to note the high level of support for EU membership in the Central and Eastern European countries in comparison with the lower levels that characterized the more developed countries of the West. Dutch voters, for example, have complained about the fact that, per capita, they are among the largest contributors to the EU and they are somewhat skeptical that they are receiving the promised benefits of EU membership. Of course, it is difficult to expect that developed countries such as the Netherlands have or will benefit from EU membership in the same way as Central and Eastern European member states, but there are definitely indications that all EU states have something to gain from membership.

            After several years of negotiations and structural adjustments, ten new member states joined the EU in 2004 (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Malta, and Cyprus) and two more joined in 2007 (Bulgaria and Romania). These two waves represent the largest enlargement period in the history of the EU. Although many member states offered their support for the enlargement, criticism about the way in which it would be carried out and the ensuing consequences abounded. Member states such as Spain and Greece protested the fact that their aid and adjustment funding had been cut in an effort to redirect funds to Central and Eastern Europe. Security concerns were raised because the borders of the EU were now being controlled by countries whose capacity to formulate sound security policies and programs had not yet been tested. Although the 2004 and 2007 enlargements did not grant the incoming member states with Schengen status, they did raise serious concerns about mass migration to the West. In fact, the British court system carried out a number of studies to determine the validity of the theories of mass migration and have since come up empty handed—no such mass migration has occurred. Member states in the West were also worried about companies seeking to establish themselves in Central and Eastern Europe, where labor and operational costs were lower, but where EU rules and regulations still applied.

            The fears of the Western member states of the EU have not materialized in the way that many analysts and scholars had believed they would. In fact, it is now possible to make light of such fears through social jokes and clichés, such as those about the Polish plumber in France. Of course, the fears are not totally unfounded. While some Western companies have relocated their operations in the east, the numbers have not been substantial enough to disrupt the economic performance in the West. Many Eastern Europeans have applied to move to the West, but many have done so legally and, therefore, illegal immigration from the east does not seem to pose as great a problem as was once feared . The fact that the EU is still working to allow more countries, like Croatia and Iceland, to join in the near future is an indication that both ‘absorption’ and ‘functional capacity’ still exists and that enlargement ‘fatigue’ has not thwarted such efforts. The case of Turkey, on the other hand, remains an enlargement challenge because there is so much disagreement on the issue. Unfortunately, the EU identity continues reflect that of a ‘white, Christian’ club and Turkey, even with all of its economic, political and judicial reforms, has little or no leverage on this implicit condition for membership.

            The evolution of the European Union has been an extremely interesting process to follow. It has had its share of difficulties associated with the various waves of enlargement, but overall, it has served to reunite Europe and bring countries with similar backgrounds and histories to a peaceful place in history. EU supporters spent several years campaigning for the passage of a Constitution for Europe and, while it failed to pass the popular vote, the Treaty of Lisbon replaced it in scope and entered into force in 2009. The Treaty of Lisbon, among other important agreements, is an indication that EU is also serving to rebuild the European identity that was nearly lost during the Cold War. Europe is a relatively small continent and most of the individual states have less leverage in the international system on their own than they do together. As a strongly united bloc, the EU member states represent one of the most stable and successful regional integration experiments in history. Although enlargement has proven to be a complex and difficult process, it seems that the European Union will continue to engage itself in these types of projects until the “completion of Europe” has been achieved.


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